While Karachi slowly burns

U.S. foreign policy must work around Pakistan rather than with it

In the game of geopolitics, Pakistan was dealt a terrible hand. It began its existence situated next to an aggressive and mortal enemy who, both in population as well as gross domestic product, outnumbered it by more than three to one.

Time has done nothing to improve this situation. Civil war, secession, and economic mismanagement on the Pakistani side have left India with an advantage in men and materiel of nearly seven to one. The addition of nuclear weapons to the subcontinent have only raised the stakes of failure.

In this context, the United States and Pakistan should be natural geopolitical allies. In an unequal confrontation between rival states, the weaker side typically has two options: sue for peace or find a strong ally to counterbalance the disparity. Pakistan’s opportunities for partnership are limited — China, despite its sometimes tense relationship with India, has little to gain in the long term from a partnership with Pakistan. Similarly, Russia has demurred as a partner, with Vladimir Putin going so far as to publicly state Russia’s preference for India over Pakistan. Nearby Muslim states are either unwilling or unable to offer support — Saudi Arabia largely follows the U.S.’s lead on relations with Pakistan, and Iran, too troubled a country to provide meaningful assistance anyway, doesn’t appear ready to add India to its long list of enemies.

The United States is more than just the last unpaired girl at the dance — in many ways, especially where the War Formerly Known as the War on Terror is concerned, Pakistan is uniquely positioned to aid U.S. interests. It is hard to imagine a stable Afghanistan without significant effort from Pakistan, and we rely upon their implicit support to conduct many of our operations against Al Qaeda. Much as it was during the Cold War, a U.S.-Pakistan partnership is rich with opportunities for mutual gain.

Unfortunately, today’s pairing between Pakistan and the U.S. is weak and acrimonious. Neither we nor the Pakistanis have been willing to trust the other, and today nearly three in five Pakistanis consider the U.S. an enemy.

Admittedly, the U.S. deserves some of the blame for this turn of events. Our withdrawal from Central Asian affairs following the collapse of the Soviet Union gave Pakistan serious cause to question the reliability of our strategic partnership, and the ongoing rivalry between the United States and China creates the risk that someday the U.S. will decide it needs a hedge against Chinese power (India) more than it needs an ally against Al Qaeda (Pakistan).

But the lion’s share of responsibility for the current state of affairs lies with Pakistan. They have failed to properly comprehend their country’s geopolitical situation, they have failed to respond to challenges in a sensible and strategic way, and the mismanagement of the country by their ruling elite verges on the point of national suicide. While the conditions for a long-term strategic partnership are favorable, our would-be partners are too strategically myopic to embrace us, and too self-destructive to be of much help even if they chose to.

At issue is not merely Pakistan’s reluctance to divert conventional forces from its eastern border with India to fight fundamentalists in its northwest. The military’s fixation on India has led the country down a path that sets it in direct opposition to the interests of the United States. At every step of the way, from their partnership with U.S. enemies to acquire nuclear weapons, to their support for terrorist groups in Kashmir, to their past (and, if the recent WikiLeaks documents are taken at face value, continuing) relationship with the Taliban, Pakistan has systematically sacrificed its long-term strategic interest — which lies either in peace with India or support from the United States — in favor of minor and temporary enhancements to its security.

The problem also goes deeper than chronic strategic miscalculation on the part of the Pakistanis; as a country, Pakistan is failing. The political dynasties that control the civilian government are venally corrupt. The educational system is in shambles — the average Pakistani adult has less than four years of education; more than half are illiterate. Businesses are dependent on government favor. The tax collection system is broken. Civil society is feeble. The country lacks infrastructure and reliable electricity. As a whole, the nation suffers from a deficit of social and political cohesion — it is split along ethnic as well as economic lines. Pakistan is a country mired in underdevelopment, and foreign aid is as likely to find its way to a Swiss bank as it is to be used for economic growth.

The recent floods are a prime example of the failure of the Pakistani state. The civilian government of Pakistan has been callous in its indifference. As his country lay paralyzed, the president, Asif Ali Zardari, jetted off to Britain to enjoy a lavish party with his son. Disaster relief efforts have been underwhelming, and in some parts, radical Islamic groups have stepped in to provide aid with impunity. The incompetent response by the Pakistani government to a natural disaster of this magnitude is reminiscent of the 1970 Bhola Cyclone, the lackluster reaction to which subsequently fomented a civil war, harsh genocide, and military humiliation by Indian forces.

As a microcosm for the nation, one can do no better than Karachi, where armed political gangs have taken advantage of the flood’s distraction to ramp up their ongoing war against each other. Each day brings fresh assassinations and retribution. In the chaos, businesses have closed, banks have closed, schools have closed — the largest city in the country has ground to a halt while Pakistanis murder each other in the streets.

It is a typically American conceit to believe that every problem has a solution. Accordingly there are still those in our foreign policy circles who believe that with the right aid and incentives, we can “fix” Pakistan. Indeed, there would be nothing better for U.S. interests than a stable and prosperous Pakistan. But this is a pipe dream. We have sunk billions of dollars in foreign aid into the country with no results. The status quo is miserable, and the trend lines are even worse. Pakistan is broken, and realistically there is nothing else for us to do but grimly watch as it unravels bit by bit along its frayed edges.

The time has come to relieve ourselves of our dependency on Pakistan and begin to engage more deeply with other nations, particularly India. Many Afghans are already privately hoping for such a re-alignment — having suffered under Pakistan-backed Taliban rule, they are distrustful of their neighbor and would like to see the U.S. bring in a different regional player. Afghanistan’s half-million Baloch would specifically prefer India, given its long time support for Baloch independence movements in Pakistan’s southwest.

This shift in strategic partnerships will not be without its downsides. In the near term, it would mean greatly lowering our expectations in Afghanistan — no partner, especially India, is going to be able to fight Pakistani Taliban like Pakistan can. In the long term it might mean having to grant concessions to new strategic allies — loosened trade restrictions for India, a more generous “restart” with Russia, less pressure on human rights abuses in China. And if it feels encircled by enemies, a failing Pakistani state will give us many headaches as it muddles along — for example, it could become a little more generous with its nuclear technology, or drop its half-hearted combat operations against the Taliban and let its northwest become an unopposed sanctuary for insurgents.

Nonetheless, the advantages of strategic re-alignment outweigh the disadvantages. The U.S. needs an ally in Central Asia who is committed to and capable of combating international terrorism and bringing stability to the region. As much as it could be, Pakistan is not this ally. We are not faced with a choice between two viable alternatives — instead, our choices are either to continue to indulge in illusions of a future, stable Pakistan, or confront the painful reality: Karachi is burning, and unless the U.S. detaches itself, we too will be caught up in the flames.